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Published on January 31, 2019

Give Your Heart a BreakGive your heart a break with a plant-based diet

Fact: I’ve sworn to eat less meat and more fruits and vegetables this year.

Fact: As I write this, I’m cooking a pot roast.  

Clearly, I need an intervention.

And so, I turned to Miguel Prieto, MD, an internist with Emerald Physicians in Bourne who not only teaches his patients how to eat better but takes his own advice to heart by sticking to a whole foods, plant-based diet – one that eliminates meat, dairy and highly processed foods and relies on those that are plant-based and minimally refined. That includes beans, fruits, greens, grains, berries, nuts, spices, vegetables and seeds.

“We’re committing suicide by fork,” Dr. Prieto said, referring to the amount of animal products and processed foods that Americans eat. “I’m trying to improve patients’ lives, not through medications, but by avoiding the medications altogether and not getting sick to begin with.”

Multiple studies, he said, have shown the benefits of a plant-based diet to reduce the risks of heart disease and conditions such as diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Among other benefits, it reduces inflammation in the body caused by foods such as meat, he said.

And, when your body’s not trying to repair damage done by inflammatory foods, it has more capacity to repair other issues, he said.

“When you’re repairing too much, you overwhelm the ability of your body to do so, you don’t repair as well. That’s when you feel fatigued, you feel tired, the chronic medical diseases come. It’s a problem.”

Dr. Prieto, 48, and his wife switched to a plant-based diet 18 months ago. It was a bit hard initially, he said, but now he enjoys the energy it gives him. It’s even helped him sleep better, he said, since he tends to eat lighter foods more often, rather than heavy meals.

“You have habits and it’s difficult to break the habits, but once you start substituting those things with really nice [foods], you don’t really miss it.”

The Protein Question

Patients sometimes worry about getting enough protein or calcium on a plant-based diet, but many people in the world don’t eat a diet heavy in meat or diary and do just fine, he said. And, not to worry: A plant-based diet is unlikely to make you any gassier than you already are.

“It’s better to pass gas than to pass on, “ he said quoting  plant-based eating guru Michael Greger, MD, author of “How Not to Die.”

If you need help understanding a plant-based diet, Dr. Prieto suggests nutritionfacts.org, Greger’s free, nonprofit website. Greger challenges readers to meet what he calls the Daily Dozen challenge and eat the following everyday:

  • 3 servings of beans (1/2 cup or ¼ cup hummus or ½ cup tofu or tempeh)
  • 3 servings fruit
  • 2 servings greens (1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked)
  • 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed
  • 3 servings whole grains (1/4 cup cereal, 1 slice bread)
  • 1 serving berries
  • 1 serving cruciferous foods, such as cauliflower
  • 1 serving nuts (1/4 cup or 2 tablespoons nut butter)
  • 1 serving turmeric (1/4 teaspoon)
  • 60 ounces of beverages such as water or green tea

Seems overwhelming? Dr. Prieto suggests committing to at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and avoiding eating processed foods, particularly cold cuts and cured meats. And don’t just change your diet, make sure you’re getting exercise (at least 150 minutes a week, or about 25 minutes a day, he said); avoiding harmful behaviors (smoking is No. 1); and watching your weight (get your Body Mass Index below 25).

I’m not quite ready to go whole hog, so to speak, but I will use plant-based foods as part of my goal of eating better and keeping my cholesterol down. Plant-based eating works for small households and solo cooks because it’s easy to keep ingredients like rice, beans and nuts on hand. It’s simple to add a handful of fresh greens to almost any meal. And any money I now spend on meat (looking at you, pot roast), can go toward fruit and vegetables.  Remember that frozen fruits and vegetables can be healthy, too.

I’ll try to sub at least two plant-based meals a week for meat-based ones and strive to hit five fruits and vegetables a day. And, perhaps I’ll go full plant-based at least one day a week. Hey, it’s a start.

Try It Yourself

Want to join me? Here are three recipes adapted for plant-based eating to get you started.

VEGETABLE CHILI

This easy recipe is from my sister, who adapted it years ago from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks. I love the eggplant in it. It freezes well and is totally adjustable to what’s in season or personal taste. You can, for example, use all canned tomatoes or substitute black beans for garbanzos, or make it spicier. Mix it with quinoa and use it to stuff a couple of peppers or squash, or serve over whole-wheat pasta or brown rice.  (To cook two or three stuffed, peppers stand them up in a bread pan.)

Note: Plant-based cooking does not use oil because it’s considered processed. You can avoid it by browning in a non-stick pan or cooking the onions and garlic a bit in the microwave before adding them. 

1/2 cup olive oil

1 eggplant

2 onions, cut into 1/2-inch dice

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 large red bell peppers, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice

35 oz. Italian plum tomatoes

1 1/2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, cut into 1-inch dice

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped

1 cup canned dark red kidney beans, drained

1 cup canned garbanzo beans, drained

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Put the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle it with salt. Let stand for 1 hour. Pat dry with paper towels.

Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the eggplant and sauté until a bit browned, adding a bit more oil if necessary. Put the eggplant in a Dutch oven. 

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup oil in the same skillet over low heat. Add the onions and green peppers and sauté just until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two. Add to the pot.

Add all the tomatoes (including liquid) chili powder, cumin, oregano, basil, pepper, salt, fennel, and parsley. Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for at least 30 minutes, until it seems blended and the tomatoes have broken down.

Stir in the kidney beans, chick-peas, dill and lemon juice and cook for another 15 or 30 minutes. (The eggplant peel should be tender, but you don’t want everything disintegrating.)  Taste and adjust seasonings.

This is even better made the day before. You can also do it in a slow cooker. I just put in the sautéed vegetables, add in everything else, and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.

THAI BAKED TOFU

I actually like tofu’s creamy texture. It’s an inexpensive, quick-cooking, long-storing protein that’s perfect for small households. It’s good in its package for weeks, and you can freeze it. It absorbs any flavor you want to give it. This is the best marinade I’ve tried. Try it on rice, pasta, or even chilled on salad.

This is adapted from the cookbook, “Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, “put out by the famous restaurant and organic food collective in Ithaca, New York.

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

1 block firm tofu (usually 14 to 16 ounces)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil (this also works without the oil, but it may not get as crisp)

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 to 2 tablespoons red or green Thai curry paste (I prefer red and used 2 tablespoons)

Cut the tofu into cube, triangles or sticks. (Some recipes suggest you press tofu between two plates for an hour or so to get out the excess water; you do not need to that for this one.)

Use a baking pan that will hold the tofu in a single layer.

In a small bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients. In the baking dish, gently toss the tofu until all surfaces are coated.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring gently after 20 minutes. When it’s done, the tofu will be firm with crisp edges and the marinade will be mostly absorbed.

DR. PRIETO’S PAPAYA BOATS

This is easy for one person. It’s good for any meal and makes you feel like you’re on a tropical vacation. Papayas are usually available in local supermarkets. Date syrup is available on Amazon.

Small papaya or two

Blueberries

Toppings of your choice: sliced almonds, kiwi, mango, figs, whatever your imagination allows

Date syrup

Almond or cashew butter (Make your own by processing nuts in a food processor or blender until smooth  – really, it works.)

Peel the papaya, cut it in half and spoon out the seeds. Put in some fruit, then a dollop of nut butter and then sliced kiwis or mangos or figs or almonds, or all of the above. Drizzle on some date syrup.

Note: As of 5/1/2019, Emerald Physicians joined Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod (MACC), a division of primary and specialty care physicians from Cape Cod Healthcare.